After 20 years representing Eastland in the Texas Legislature, state Representative Jim Keffer is stepping down. The Republican has been a fixture in passing major energy and environmental legislation, and is currently the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee.
A top lieutenant of House speaker Joe Straus, Keffer was one of the original 11 “cardinals” who pushed out then-speaker Tom Craddick in 2009 and later became a tea party target. During his tenure at the Capitol, Keffer strongly opposed school vouchers, spearheaded fracking chemical disclosures and authored HB 40 — a law commonly called the “ban on bans” that severely restricted local governments’ ability to restrict oil and gas activity. In 2011, he was named one of the state’s best legislators by Texas Monthly. He sat down with the Observer in his Capitol office to talk about climate change, taking on the Texas tea party and supporting Donald Trump despite the GOP nominee’s “question marks.”
Texas Observer: On a spectrum from being a staunch environmentalist to believing that any environmental regulation hurts business, where do you fall?
Jim Keffer: We have to be good stewards of what we have. The environment doesn’t run us, but it can certainly devastate us if we don’t do it [use natural resources] well. I guess I fall in the camp that it’s there for our use, but we better be dang sure and very judicious and very thoughtful in how we use it.
TO: Do you believe in climate change?
JK: I believe there is climate change. What is causing it, whether it’s man made or whether it’s just one of those deals. [Shrugs] My real world job, we have iron foundries. We’re always looked at as the bad guy. But we have to follow the rules and regulations of input into the air so we’re a very regulated industry. I believe [climate change] is a natural phenomena, but within that we have to take the stand that mankind not make it any worse, do what we can to make sure that we are as clean as possible. I’m sort of a hybrid in that regard.
I’m not a scientist. I read, like you do. And it’s a very mixed bag. There are those that believe it. There are those scientists that say no, it’s just one of those deals. So I don’t know where to fall. I do know that where I’m concerned and where my company is concerned, we’re going to do whatever we can to be as clean as possible. Our biggest issue is do you go too far and put everybody out of business and set a goal that is unreachable? I think that’s what a lot of the heartburn I have comes from. But within reason we’re going to do everything we can to be as clean as possible.
TO: In 2010, you authored a bill mandating that companies disclose chemicals used in fracking. Why was that an important issue for you?
JK: We would have been the first state to do something of that magnitude. I was chairman of [the] energy [committee]. I had some conversations with not only environmentalists that thought it was important, but also some producers that thought it was important and some service companies that thought it was important. Obviously that was a minority, but I thought there was enough information and facts there to go forward with it. It was a tremendous challenge that I wanted to undertake. I thought it was, I won’t say fun, but I thought the benefit to the industry itself was worth the fight. It’s almost like you’re trying to help the industry even though the industry doesn’t want it.
TO: You started out with very few companies on your side.
I had enough. It was Scott Anderson [from Environmental Defense Fund] and Mark Boling with Southwestern [who brought me the issue]. That sort of perked up my ears when you have a Scott Anderson from Environmental Defense Fund and a producer coming in here at the same time and saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’ I go, ‘Wow, that’s different.’ You don’t see that happen every time. I guess that’s what piqued my interest. The more we got into it there were those that saw the benefit and thought it was a good thing and wanted to do it. In my mind, I was helping the industry even though some in the industry didn’t think I was.
TO: With concessions on trade secrets and other changes, the environmental groups didn’t officially support the bill. They felt it had been watered down.
JK: They all congratulated us. It was more input than they’ve ever had from anything they’ve ever done. I will say the locals [Texas environmental groups’ staff] were happy. I don’t want to get them in trouble. I know Cyrus [Reed of Sierra Club] and Scott [Anderson] were very pleased with what happened. Their guys, they have to answer to and they don’t want fracking at all. We tried to find, number one, a bill that could pass. That’s what you have to do around this place. So you gotta find a happy medium where you’re not watering it down, I felt, to the point where it didn’t mean anything versus somebody killing the bill. That could happen. There were still attempts to kill the bill, but I was very pleased with what we did and really I think everybody was very surprised that Texas was taking the lead in doing something like that. And I wanted Texas to take the lead. I didn’t want people to think Texas was a lapdog for the industry.
TO: You sponsored the 2013 Railroad Commission Sunset bill, which eventually died because House members couldn’t agree on several reforms. Do you think the Lege will have better luck passing the Sunset’s recommendations this time around?
JK: The problem was, there were a lot of problems. As energy chair, when I was looking at it, they [the industry and lawmakers] wanted to make it one commissioner instead of three. They wanted to change so many things. I went to the industry and said, you guys, these are the Sunset recommendations. It’s one of those things where you all have to make up your mind. I gave them my point of view and then they just decided that [opposing the Sunset’s recommendations for reform] was what was going to happen. I’m sorry we had to kill the bill. I was going against some good friends and a lot of hard work and they really put some thought into it. I just felt bad for the industry.
And here we are still trying to pass the bill. Hopefully, Larry Gonzales [chairman of the Sunset Commission] will be successful. To me, the whole process needs to be looked at. I’ve just seen so many times, everybody hangs the bills that pass on this deal, and it weighs it down and it is very unmanageable. I’d love to see, if they could separate it [the reforms into different bills] and do that. That’s pretty big change and I think it’s going to be better for the sunset process.
TO: In 2013, after the Public Utility Commission’s Sunset bill came out of committee and was set for a House vote, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans sent out an email blast disparaging the bill and arguing that the agency’s enforcement authority needed to be reduced. How do you handle folks in your own party that are trying to derail your work?
JK: All you can do is meet them head on. A lot of times those groups don’t have it right. They assume or they don’t read the bill, or they just decided they don’t like the author or whatever the case may be. I mean, you have to educate the floor real quick. If you get a wind of that happening, and you got time to work the floor and tell the truth or what the facts are or whatever, you got to do whatever it takes to do that.
What I don’t like, though, has morphed into or devolved into some of these groups being able to take stuff out of context or out-and-out lie about a bill. And you have a certain group that just accepts it without going and looking into the facts or what is going, on or talking to the author. There’s a group that just says its gospel and go on from that. That’s what is frustrating, and that’s what you have to fight. Some of these outside groups, for their own agenda and for their own reason for being, they’ll take an author they don’t like and misrepresent his bill to House membership or Senate and sometimes prevail, and that’s a shame. To me, it’s our duty to look at the facts and representing our district.
TO: Are you supporting Trump this election?
JK: [Sighs] He is the Republican nominee and I will support him, yes. As you’ve heard many many times, he was not my first choice. Mike Huckabee was my first choice. I do like some of the things Trump is saying. I fight the Chinese every day in my business. I’m a domestic manufacturer, and I’ve had to fight imports. I like that he’s bringing up trade, because that is something we really need to look at to see if it is a balanced treaty or effort. Fair trade is what I’d like to see and I’m glad that he’s bringing that up. But he is very untried and every day there’s something else where you’re going, ‘What in the world, where did that come from?’ But he went through the system. He went through the process and he got more votes than any other prior candidate.
I took the stance that I’ll try to make him a better candidate. How that’s going to happen, I don’t know. Not supporting him, or supporting a Libertarian, or as some have done, left the party and supporting Clinton, I don’t think that’s the route to take.
I don’t know his heart. When Romney ran, I’m not a Mormon, but I supported him. I can’t say that everything Trump is talking about I would sit there and support offhand. But if it’s a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then what I know about her, what she believes in and does, I have less support than Trump. Even though Trump is a lot of gray area and question marks, still. But she’s been about long enough that I know where she comes from on issues, so I don’t agree with a lot of that. There’s some steps of faith that you have to take. But I will take Trump over Clinton.